Kangan Arora: Beyond textiles
“Anything is possible, you don’t have to be restricted by your skills. I’m a designer, not just a screen-printer or a maker. I want to collaborate with other skilled people and that’s where things can get interesting.” says Kangan Arora, whilst sipping away on a cup of elaichi tea when we caught up with her at her London studio recently.
Not someone keen on being pigeonholed in just one area of expertise, Kangan is fast establishing herself as a multidisciplinary designer in the London scene. With a background in fashion and textile design, she is currently running her successful eponymous brand which has enabled her to be recognised not only as a textile designer but someone who can apply her creative rigour to a number of disciplines.
Full of positive energy and a can-do attitude, Kangan is a believer of grabbing opportunities beyond her comfort zone that have ultimately helped her learn and branch out as a design studio. This year seems to have been a significant one in particular where her use of bold colour, geometric patterns and abstraction have transcended into wayfinding for London Design Fair, exhibition design for This Is India pavilion and packaging for REN’s limited edition Christmas range, to name a few.
How did it all start? Tell us about your background and how you got into textiles?
It was always there, my family is in the textile business so I’ve grown up with it. I always knew it was something I was going to get into in some form or another. When I was thinking about what to choose as a career, I was either going to choose design or business. I loved economics, maths and all that at the time, but now after running my own business that’s the part I hate the most! So I’m glad I didn’t do that as I would’ve been rubbish! I have many cousins that are in the creative industry, so that was something that was encouraged, we were always told to do what we wanted to do, which was great.
I did fashion at National Institute of Fashion Technology. Because I studied in Gujarat, all my work was textile oriented, because you can’t help it – you’re surrounded by beautiful traditional textiles all the time. By the end of the three years, I knew I wanted to continue studying textiles, so I came to the UK to do that – I wanted to get out and see something else.
I began studying textiles at Central Saint Martins. Whilst I was there, I found it hard to design without thinking of an end use for my textiles. We were encouraged to develop textiles without necessarily having a particular reason for it, but I wasn’t just happy to make something and not create a context for it to exist, design needs a purpose. My final degree show ended up being a collection of home furnishings and I guess I started building on that.
How did you go from your final year degree show to creating the Kangan Arora brand?
I don’t think it was a conscious decision at all. It was probably halfway through my first job after graduating when I decided to have a stand at a market curated by Selvedge magazine. I had all my work from my degree show, and I ended up doing really well! I sold all my products and it gave me a taste of where I could go with it. I remember the buzz! When people are actually parting with their money to buy something you created, it’s just amazing! I’ve done markets for three years since then and I don’t think any have come close to being as successful as that first one! I’m glad that was my first experience as it was such a positive one. Had it been a negative one, then maybe, I wouldn’t have been so bold to risk doing my own thing. I could see I had something people were interested in and it just sort of grew from there I guess. I took every opportunity and started doing markets every weekend which lead to starting my brand and creating a website.
Where does your inspiration come from?
In terms of inspiration, my work has changed a lot from the first time I created products. I’m drawn to Indian street culture and as I went on I realised I enjoy colour. It is something that has always been a constant in my work. You can’t separate that from me, it’s pretty much unavoidable. Again, it’s not a conscious decision but one that’s quite intuitive.
A lot of my design is informed by screen printing, it’s so hands-on with an incredible amount of process. When you’re designing on the computer you can pretty much do whatever you want to some extent. In screenprinting, you have to leave a little bit to chance, and that allows experimentation and unexpected things to occur. It’s something that happens instantly in front of you and suddenly makes sense. Also, I’m quite indecisive. There is just so much choice! I can’t decide how to design everything from start to finish on paper, so I let what happens on the print run lead me a bit.
Tell us more about your collaborations this year. How did they come about?
This Is India, London Design Fair
Earlier this year I was approached by Jimmy MacDonald, Director and Founder of London Design Fair to design the India pavilion. It caught me at a time when I was a bit unsure about where I wanted to take my brand, but when you’re presented with a chance like this you don’t say no. In my mind I was thinking how on earth am I going to do this. The one thing that stresses me out the most when I have my own stands is deciding what to do with the space, product is easy, I can do that no problem, but designing the space I would procrastinate over for months! Thinking in terms of space is a different ball game altogether, but I said yes anyway as it was an amazing opportunity – that’s how you grow and that’s how you learn.
When designing the pavilion, I started thinking about India in a very different context. My personal work is definitely inspired by India through pattern and colour, but for this project I wanted to disassociate my own aesthetic because I had to look at it as a space to showcase twelve very different designers. It was imperative their work was the main focus and I was creating a landscape for that. I had to tune my brain slightly differently and it was a really interesting process, I actually surprised myself and had so many different ideas. The end result was a concept based around the idea of repetition. We used five hundred terracotta pots, hand-painted and stacked as circling colonnades and stepped towers – a nod to the ancient astronomical instruments and jagged geometries of the Jantar Mantar.
Shapescape, London Design Fair
For Shapescape I was approached only three weeks before the show was opening but I felt really confident to take it on – by then I sort of knew what I was doing. The short deadline actually made it quite fun, there was less time to procrastinate.
The challenge here, was to think about how to make a 20-metre long facade in a fairly innocuous street look interesting and engaging. Always drawn to working with colour and geometry, Shapescape was a landscape of oversized shapes to graphically represent the idea of a workshop. It got a little bit more interesting when we decided to take advantage of the number of suppliers that took part in the fair and have materials become part of the installation as well. We ended up introducing surfaces such as marble, black cork, perspex and lots more. Doing that made me realise, why stop at textiles, there’s a whole world of materials out there.
An employee at REN follows me on Instagram and kept suggesting to their marketing team to get me onboard. I’m so grateful to Instagram, it’s such an amazing resource. They got in touch with me about Christmas packaging and I said yes! Again, I don’t know anything about packaging design, but I went for it.
REN gave me such an open brief, they asked me to just do what I do. They could see how my aesthetic works for their brand and they’ve really been celebrating the collaboration. That’s why it was so interesting, not only is it a fun range of packaging but it still adheres to all the principles that are important to REN. I enjoyed the entire process, from researching to thinking about design in a three-dimensional form, speaking with suppliers, and now seeing it in the shops. I’ve always wanted to be in stores such as Liberty and Bon Marché and now my work is there.
What’s the future looking like?
At the moment, I’m really enjoying just designing conceptually and I think that’s the direction I want to head in. I want to be known more as a studio where I hope to collaborate and make furniture, design stationery and lots more. I think it’s ok to keep exploring and experiment with a variety of mediums. I want to approach each project for what it is and whether the outcome is product or an installation, I think the idea has to dictate what it should become. I want to have a viewpoint, do it really well and have a strong aesthetic.
Anything is possible, you don’t have to be restricted by your skills. I’m a designer, not just a screen-printer or a maker. I want to collaborate with other skilled people and that’s where things can get interesting.
Finally, what’s your view on Indian Design?
I think both aesthetics [the kitsch and contemporary] can exist. I don’t think there’s a right and a wrong. I don’t think either can be the authority on Indian design, there’s room for everything. It’s very difficult to define Indian design, you can’t! It’s difficult to define India as it’s different from city to city, north to south – we don’t have to be too serious to answer what is it.
I love kitsch, I’ve taken pictures of the water tanks in Punjab and every year visit the truck making workshops in Ludhiana, yes they’re kitsch but they’re so unique. They tell the story of the people who are living there. I don’t look at kitsch as bad taste, I look at it as inspiration. There’s something really interesting there that might not be of my preference, but I like the story and I like where it’s coming from. It’s part of the visual landscape of India, you can’t ignore it.
Image credits: Kangan Arora, Bridie Sullivan and Bound